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Wednesday, 15 June 2016 19:34

If you build it, they will come (and drink); Franklin welcomes first craft brewery

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TG lazyhikerCruising through downtown Franklin, one begins to wonder where exactly is the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. You’ve been told it’s on Main Street, but where? And just as you begin to debate whether to turn around and try again, your vehicle hits the crest of a steep downhill.

Over the rise appears a building illuminated, like a lighthouse on the high seas of a vast and unknown Southern Appalachian night. It’s a building of people and purpose. You’re here. You’ve made it to Franklin’s first craft brewery. 

What was once the old town hall, the structure has been transformed into a state-of-the-art production facility and taproom. The brewery is a frenzied space, where a warm ambiance of strangers and friends alike is coupled with a curiosity and passion that is solely unique to the craft beer industry.

“It’s something pretty special that now you can taste a fresh beer made in Franklin, and be confident that what they’re tasting is good,” said co-owner Ken Murphy. 

The idea for Lazy Hiker started brewing in the minds of Murphy, Tommy Jenkins and Lenny Jordan. As the three main owners behind the project, they were looking for something that not only could be a successful business, but an entity that could also be a missing piece to the ever-growing puzzle of Franklin’s economic and cultural future.

“We felt like we needed a double bottom line,” Jordan said. “We needed the brewery to be viable, and also be able to do something for the community, to add to what makes this place special.”

Thus, the trio put their vision into motion. They settled on the idea of renovating the old town hall, which opened in May 2015. After a nationwide search, Brewmaster Noah McIntee was hired. Formerly the director of brewing operations at Pearl Street Grill & Brewery and Pan American Grill & Brewery in Buffalo, New York, McIntee was eager to head his own project, with the Lazy Hiker the vehicle to do so.

“It has been the culmination of a lot of work at light speed to get the point of opening day,” McIntee said. “Asheville has an incredible scene, and it says something to come into this region with a well-known craft beer scene already — good craft beer leads to more good craft beer.”

The brewery runs on a two vessel 15-barrel system, one that includes three 30-barrel (and one 15-barrel) fermenters. With Asheville, a worldwide recognized craft beer mecca, an hour and a half down the road, McIntee likes living, thriving and creating in the small mountain town.

“Franklin is far enough away to where we can do our own thing, and yet, we’re close enough to still be part of what’s going on in Asheville,” he said. “Craft beer is a production industry where you can see the immediate results, and that’s something I like, where I can make it and I can walk upstairs and see people drinking it.”

In their first seven months of operation, Lazy Hiker became a mainstay in six Western North Carolina counties (Macon, Swain, Jackson, Clay, Cherokee and Graham). That number will increase to 38 counties as they recently joined forces with Skyland Distributing in Asheville.

Though just in the midst of celebrating their first year, Lazy Hiker points to coming out of the gate with a quality product, and also immersing themselves within the region, as the keys to success, traits that ultimately led to Skyland knocking on their door. 

“We’re one of the fastest growing breweries, if not the fastest, in Western North Carolina,” McIntee said. “And I think a lot of that comes to just being out there in the communities, shaking hands, talking to people, and providing them with great craft beer.”

At the end of 2015, Lazy Hiker had brewed over 500 barrels of beer, with projections to double that come their one-year anniversary in May 2016. And with an expanding market, McIntee is certain those expectations and products will only soar once orders roll in from around their new jurisdiction.

“In a great environment like Western North Carolina where craft is received and loved, being in this environment is one thing and being able to sell in this market is another thing,” he said. “I think we went into the market with a fantastic product, and I think we’ve seen success because of that.” 

Strolling the floor of the taproom, there’s a buzz in the air. Faces from down the street, around the county and across the region are congregating. They hoist their pints up and in appreciation of this paradise we call Western North Carolina.

“I enjoy seeing the people at our community table,” Jordan said. “People who might not know each other, but they’re sitting together, enjoying craft beer together, talking about the products, enjoying their company. It’s what we wanted from the start, and now it’s a reality.”